Open Qing dynasty mansions to the public, Beijing conservationists say

With only two of more than 40 Qing dynasty royal mansions in Beijing open to the public, conservationists are pleading for better use of these unique heritage sites, writes Andrea Chen

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 May, 2014, 9:57am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 May, 2014, 10:02am

Just a block away from the Forbidden City stands one of Beijing's largest Qing-era royal courtyard complexes, the mansion of Prince Li. A plaque near its main entrance identifies the mansion as having been incorporated into the heritage list of the municipal authorities in 1984. But the residential complex that once housed Daishan, the second son of Qing dynasty founder Nurhaci who was elevated to the position of Prince Li, is closed to visitors virtually year round. Few people have the opportunity to learn what lies within its walls, let alone take a closer look at its structure.

One resident living nearby recalls her experience when she tried to take photos of its ornate front doors.

"A guard in military uniform opened the gate and told me it was a prohibited military zone," says the resident, who declined to be named. "He asked me to show him the pictures I took and then deleted them."

Heritage sites like princes' mansions are cultural resources that should be shared by the public, not a privileged few
Kong Fanzhi, policy adviser 

The mansion is among several dozen royal residences from the Qing dynasty (1644-1912) now utilised as government offices. The emperor's siblings typically moved out of the imperial palace after reaching adulthood, and manorial complexes were built in the inner city as their personal homes. But following the establishment of the People's Republic of China, many were taken over by government departments, military and public institutions.

Prince Li's mansion was turned into offices for the Ministry of Interior Affairs (now Civil Affairs) soon after the Communist Party seized power in 1949. To many elderly residents in Xicheng district, it is better known as the former residence of Hua Guofeng, who succeeded Mao Zedong as party chairman.

There is no information on which official or department took over from Hua, but PLA songs and slogans emanating from the heritage site are reminders to the public that visitors are not welcome.

Of more than 40 princes' mansions in Beijing, 29 are recognised as heritage sites - five are registered on the national list, 16 on the municipal list and eight on the district list.

Only two - the former residences of Prince Gong and Prince Chun - have been opened to the public as tourist attractions.

Twelve mansions are being used as offices for state and municipal authorities, another 12 serve as residences of party cadres and the rest have been turned into schools, theatres and even hospitals.

However, conservation-minded academics and officials are now lobbying for the government to make more appropriate use of these unique heritage sites in the capital.

At meetings of the Beijing municipal political consultative conference (parliament) earlier this year, policy adviser Kong Fanzhi proposed that government departments move out of the mansions so that they could be made accessible to ordinary people.

"The value of heritage sites like a prince's mansion will be fully demonstrated when it is open to the public," says Kong, former cultural heritage chief of the Beijing municipal administration.

When Qing rule eventually crumbled in the wake of the 1911 nationalist revolution, the mansions were sold to wealthy merchants or occupied by warlords until Mao's forces defeated the Kuomintang in the civil war and established the people's republic.

"The new government was badly in need of office buildings when they chose Beijing as the capital," Kong says.

Unlike Nanjing, which Chiang Kai-shek declared as the capital of the Republic of China in 1927, very few government buildings were constructed in Beijing in the '40s. As a result, the communist rulers turned the palatial residences of the imperial siblings into offices.

Princes' mansions are superior examples of ancient residential and royal courtyard architecture, second only to the imperial palaces, says Fang Yong, a Peking University professor specialising in ancient Chinese architecture.

"The royal families were paying for the construction so architects were able to achieve perfection in terms of design, material and location."

Featuring symmetrical designs, the princely complexes are typically laid out along a central axis with the main building facing south and associated apartments set on the east and west flanks of courtyards, reflecting the hierarchy of China's last imperial dynasty, Fang says.

Naturally, the new socialist-minded occupants of the mansions were not interested in preserving imperial architecture. Kong says: "There was very little recognition of the value of ancient architecture."

The mansion of Prince Zheng was among the imperial residences to fall victim to the city's modernisation. One of the four largest princely complexes of the Qing dynasty, it once covered a space of more than five hectares. But all that remains of the original complex are the front gates and the main building, which is now occupied by the China Education Development Foundation. Its backyard and side residences were demolished in the intervening years and residential and office buildings developed in their place.

Such alterations to historical structures and addition of new buildings would be prohibited under the Heritage Law passed in 2002. The legislation came too late, however, to save many royal residences - including Prince Zheng's - although it was included in the Beijing municipality's heritage list in 1984.

Heritage conservationists are doing their best to help preserve the remaining mansions.

Li Chunqing, a professor at the Beijing University of Civil Engineering and Architecture, has been building a database of the princes' residences.

"Mansions occupied by government departments are in comparatively better condition," she says. "But those converted into private residences that are shared by several families are the worst. Some are left with no more than a stele."

But four years into her research, Li says she had yet to be able to visit all the sites.

"Our project comes up against a brick wall all the time. Most of the mansions are not open to the public, including us researchers."

Fang shares her sense of frustration: "Guards [at the gates] will tell you that site [belongs to] a government department, a military zone, or drive you away without giving you any reason."

For all their historical and architectural value, there has been little study or information on princes' residences.

Li is optimistic the Qing era complexes will ultimately be made accessible as the country begins to recognise the importance of preserving its architectural heritage, citing Prince Gong Mansion, one of two such sites opened to the public in the past three decades.

Fang takes a gloomier view, however. It would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to relocate the institutions and turn the mansions into historical showpieces, he says.

"The government departments occupying the mansions are often much more powerful than the administration of cultural heritage."

Even if the occupants were willing to move out, the central government might not be able to afford new premises in the inner city, given soaring property prices, Fang adds.

Indeed, while heading the Beijing municipality's cultural bureau, Kong approached a few departments about relocation but his efforts were in vain.

He argues the best way to preserve the historical mansions is to open them to the public, placing the sites under the supervision of cultural heritage officials. "Heritage sites like princes' mansions are cultural resources that should be shared by the public, not a privileged few," he says.

Kong, who retired last year, is described by ex-colleagues at the Beijing municipality's cultural bureau as someone who "protected cultural heritage as protecting one's life". As an indicator of his dedication, they pointed to the way he kept watch at Zhihua Temple every Lunar New Year to ensure that fireworks set off during festivities would not spark a fire at the ancient structure.

Having been involved in the extensive restoration works at Prince Gong Mansion before it was turned into a public museum, Kong says directives from the central government are critical to the rehabilitation of such historical sites.

Even with orders from the State Council, it took decades of lobbying before cultural administrators could come up with a relocation plan that satisfied the various state institutes that occupied the space.

Completed in 1777, the six-hectare complex made up of serene gardens, interconnected courtyard apartments and grand pavilions was the residence of He Shen, a favoured official of Emperor Qianlong, before it was assigned to the titular prince in the late 19th century. Its landscaped gardens drew particular admiration and is said to have inspired the setting for Cao Xueqin's classical novel, Dream of the Red Mansion.

After 1949, the buildings were divided up between several institutes administered by the Ministry of Culture for use as offices and homes. In the 60s, Premier Zhou Enlai called on the Beijing municipal government to appropriate funds to renovate the grand mansion and make the heritage site available to the people. Part of the gardens were opened up in 1988 but it took another two decades before Prince Gong Mansion was fully accessible.

"And that was just a ministry in charge of making culture policies," Fang says. "Imagine how difficult it would be to persuade other ministries to move out, not to mention the military."

When the Prince Gong Mansion was rededicated as a museum in 2008 following renovations, tens of thousands of visitors came from across the country to explore its beautifully restored grounds and pavilions.

But the cultural splendour embodied in dozens of other princely mansions dotted around the capital remain privy only to the few state institutions lodged in them.

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